Liam Gillick, “Discussion Bench Platforms, a ‘Volvo Bar’ and Everything Good Goes” at Casey Kaplan Gallery

Liam Gillick, exhibition view, 2010. Photograph courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery.

Liam Gillick’s sculpture, writing and design relate to architectural space, but rarely encourage us to inhabit it, making the seemingly simple addition of benches to his previously debuted overhead sculptures (titled ‘discussion platforms’) a profound development.  In a video, Gillick advocates occupation of time, not space, as a means to bring about social change; paradoxically, the new sculpture seems to allow both and relies heavily on the artist’s habitual hope that simple objects will convey complex ideology.

Gillick would be the last artist to purposefully set up binary oppositions, but fundamental incongruities abound, as when the proximity of colorful sculpture makes ordinary benches look beautiful.  In the video, we peer over the artist’s shoulder into the dual emptiness of his sterile workspace and his computer screen, where he manipulates an architectural drawing of a factory inspired by a Godard film.  The accompanying jargon-filled soundtrack offers a flood of words from the ‘authoritative voice’ Gillick abhors and frustratingly resists any connection to the source material.

In the main gallery, a textual exchange between a quasi time traveler and a contemporary bartender paired with images from medieval woodcuts is more likely to catalyze Gillick’s audience with its provocative blur of time and place.  Familiar and strange at the same time, the centuries-old scenes of labor and communal celebration are a puzzle and an exhortation to consider the leisure time we’re enjoying as we sit.  Benches – perches of lovers, readers or the homeless – may be less the seats of power than tables or desks, but their identity as temporary resting places is a perfect fit for the in-and-out patterns of gallery visitors and the speculative nature of Gillick’s project.

Daido Moriyama at Luhring Augustine

Daido Moriyama, Hawaii, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York.

A lone, hunched figure—Van Gogh’s Sorrow draped in a beach towel—opens postwar Japanese photography legend Daido Moriyama’s show about Hawaii, but its brooding mood is misleading. In contrast to a selection of his photos from the ’70s and ’80s in the back gallery, Moriyama’s recent work is literally and figuratively lighter, departing from his trademark rough, blurred and out-of-focus style in a redemptively upbeat portrayal of the islands.

With refreshing honesty, Moriyama doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an outsider, sticking to themes of sun, sand and tourism. Apart from a few shots—weeds engulfing an abandoned car or a hula girl mural in a grubby yard—he’s less interested in exposing life behind the scenes than transforming stereotypical subject matter, which he does with mixed success. A grainy shot of fog rolling in over tropical vegetation and blurred images of palms are nothing new, but a fast-food joint made radically strange by dramatic sunlight or a still close-up of a highly erotic conch shell render the overly familiar strange.

Instead of mounting a critique of crass commercialism, Moriyama portrays tourists as intrinsic to or respectful of the landscape—a kid crawls turtlelike on the beach, and poncho-wearing lava watchers resemble pilgrims—while uncommonly pleasant tourist-shop mannequins portray commerce as low-key. Lest the series come across as too feel-good, Moriyama adds an excremental pile of lava here, a grotesque sunbather there. But with the exception of a kitschy image of a dog wearing sunglasses—a far cry from the artist’s iconic 1971 depiction of a menacing stray—the series’s positive tone is striking evidence of Moriyama’s sensitivity to Hawaii’s mutability.

Originally published in Time Out New York, no 753, March 4-10, 2010.

Virgil Marti at Elizabeth Dee Gallery

Virgil Marti, installation view. Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York.

Virgil Marti threw a party, but no one showed up. Or so appears his latest decor-as-fine-art installation of wallpapers and furnishings. Chromed mirrors, and anthropomorphized home trappings claiming James Whistler and Chippendale as inspiration, drive home Marti’s recurring theme, that kitsch and excess are two sides of the same coin. But while his show perfectly sets the mood for a high-camp soiree, in the quietly trafficked gallery, it leaves the lingering impression that our invitations must have been lost in the mail.

Not many artists would represent their parents as settees upholstered in flowers, fur and gold lamé (for Mom) or deep blue with black polka dots rimmed in yellow accents (for Dad), as this one does. These fabulously eccentric character studies suggest that Marti is either the secret love child of Liz Taylor and Barry White, or he’s using liberal doses of artistic license to charming effect.

Unfortunately, the seats are off-limits according to a posted sign, sinking the possibility of an impromptu gathering or interaction with strangers. Granted, Marti’s work speaks to the history of objects, but relational aesthetics has us primed to enjoy a coffee and film à la Rirkrit Tiravanija. Frankly, this show could use a little of that, especially since references to role-play, social interaction and posturing seem to run throughout, from the swagged wallpaper (resembling the curtain of an opulent old theater or movie palace) to the hardwood patterns on the mirrors (a reference to treading the boards?). Sadly, allusions to socializing aren’t as compelling as the real thing.

Originally published in Time Out New York, issue 748, January 28 – February 3, 2010.

William Daniels, “Paintings” at Luhring Augustine

William Daniels, "Untitled," 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Vilma Gold, London and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles.

“I thought they’d be bigger!” exclaimed one visitor to William Daniels’s first New York solo show of oil-on-board paintings, none bigger than 13 inches square. In reproductions, Daniels’s images of angular metallic surfaces—mystery objects wrapped in aluminum foil situated within foil-covered sets—grab attention. In person, the seven tiny pieces dotting the walls of the main gallery convey a cheery yet shallow intimacy, evoking shiny candy wrappers or Christmas lights glinting off an ornament.

Despite the bonhomie of pretty hues, Daniels’s subject matter is monotonous, and seesaws between superrealism and lyrical license—a style that’s especially frustrating when the objects are hard to distinguish from their backgrounds and merge into shallow planes of crinkly foil. Eschewing the temptation to depict people or things in reflection—à la Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, for example—Daniels rejects references to the outside world, creating little hermetic dioramas of light and color, calculated to break boundaries between abstraction and representation, painting and sculpture, by being all at once.

Undoubtedly, this show proves Daniels’s painterly ability and experimental creativity. But unlike his previous meticulously painted reproductions of torn-paper collages sending up or paying homage to canonical art-historical images, the latest work is, unfortunately, literally reflective, and not metaphorically so. The foil covered objects recall John Chamberlain’s twisted auto parts without their bravado, or James Rosenquist’s chrome panels segueing into spaghetti minus the subject matter. Ultimately, while Daniels’s paintings connect with the contemporary fashion for antimonumentality, they have disappointingly little to say.

Originally published in Time Out New York, issue 748, January 28 – February 3, 2010.

Tracey Baran, “Pictures of Tracey,” Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects

The feeling of silent stillness in this memorial exhibition of Tracey Baran’s self-portraits and photographs of her family and friends is palpable, an affecting parallel to a life suddenly stopped short after a brief illness at age 33.  The action of Baran’s past hunting, demolition derby and road-trip photo series has been excluded to show the artist in the context of those she cared about in intimate moments of friendship, restful calm, and longing.  Sometimes considered a chronicler of small town life, this show convincingly argues that Baran pursued grander themes, uncovering evidence of the profound mysteries of familial and romantic love in rural America.

Baran’s more wistful pictures now appear prescient; as she kisses a steamy window after a goodbye or gazes out a window with fingers crossed, she’s not just a young woman caught up in her inner world but a harbinger of more profound loss.  Other pictures beautifully capture a time of life when major decisions are frighteningly open and the future is yet to be written, as in ‘Today I’m 30’ in which Baran greets a new decade with a spirited scowl as she curls up on the edge of her bed near a solitary cupcake.

Baran’s photographs have the quietude of a stage, not just the country or her thought life.  Several of her contemporaries were influenced by Gregory Crewdson’s artificial dramas; Baran shares his fascination with rural life but not its noir mood, the stories told via her portraits are informed by art history and first-hand knowledge of her subjects.  Her father morphs from misfit to thinker in a bathtub portrait that recalls David’s Marat, Baran channels Girodet to picture her boyfriend awash in a celestial glow in a mossy glade, ‘In the Garden’ pictures the two in archetypal roles as Adam and Eve, while ‘Ivy’ depicts Baran as an unorthodox odalisque who’s taken a roll in some poison ivy.  Such references might help validate her eccentric characters for us, but the tenderness with which they are depicted suggests that for Baran, the ones she loved transcended time and place.

Originally published in Flash Art, November – December 2009.